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    Members’ Reports

    André Dombrowski
    Center 41

    André Dombrowski

    Monet’s Minutes: Impressionism and the Industrialization of Time

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    Claude Monet, Rouen Cathedral, West Façade (detail), 1894, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.49

    The impressionist instant emerged in an era of wholesale changes in the measurement and meaning of time. Claude Monet’s (1840–1926) abrupt, expressive, and self-referential handling of paint and his carefree attitude toward traditional rules of composition are the telling inverse of significant period advances in synchronized and standardized time measures, developments with profound effects on how time has been lived and experienced since the mid-19th century. Arguing for an aesthetics of instantaneity as an outgrowth—a beautification even—of the dulling cultures of the routinized minute, my project traces the evolution of modern art to what were then seismic shifts in the shape of time itself. To that end, I offer new interpretations of key works by Monet, stretching from the beginnings of impressionism in the 1860s to his painting in series in the 1890s, seen through the lens of modern conceptions and infrastructures of time. These stretch the gamut from psychology to technology, or from the “now-time” of consciousness (what William James called the “specious present”) to the national and global time standards that were newly established during Monet’s lifetime. Pointing beyond the instant as impressionism’s favored temporality, my aim is to portray the style as profoundly in thrall to the modernization and industrialization of time itself, rather than a mere representation of the natural times of sunsets, wintry weather, and morning mists. 

    Monet’s version of impressionism sought, even if incompletely, to make represented time and the time of representation coterminous. With his seemingly quick and unpolished touch, it is frequently said, he and many other impressionists gave the modern cultures of speed their first appropriately modernist forms. Monet’s impressionism evinced an acute awareness of the particularly modern pressures of time. It chronicled constant shifts in weather, the seasons, and the time of day, while heroizing new practices of leisure time. But since time is a visually elusive category that hardly has a specific iconography or set of codified representations (except in allegorical characters like Chronos or the shape of a clockface), Monet’s swift-seeming handling of paint became a crucial way in which time itself could receive modern figuration. Precisely because these features of impressionism are so well known, art historians have rarely paused to interrogate the concrete histories and technologies of time (and timekeeping) that underwrote impressionism’s seismic stylistic shifts, or to inquire into the links between “quickening” brushwork and the 19th century’s industrialization of time. This is especially remarkable given that key scientific events in the measurement of modern time—the advent of quantifiable, psychophysiological time in the 1850s–1860s, as well as the invention of “universal” time centered on the Greenwich meridian in the mid-1880s—overlap so precisely with the history of French impressionism. My book project sets out to deliver such a study, proposing an intimate correlation between the period’s fascination with the instant—including representations of time in easel painting, film, and visual culture—and its concurrent regulation of time. 

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    André Dombrowski delivering Colloquium CCCXXIII, “Monet’s Minutes: On the Temporality of the Instant,” February 18, 2021

    The book manuscript I completed while at the Center is divided into five chapters, each focusing on the relation between a set of Monet’s works and a specific technology or experience of time. The first two chapters engage the emergence of impressionism in the mid- to late 1860s through the time frames of psychophysiology. Focusing on Monet’s early impressionist paintings and his failed, large-scale project of Déjeuner sur l’herbe, these chapters connect the new scientific measuring of the speed of sensory transmission (known for the first time as “reaction time”) and the codification of our conscious ability to experience “now-time” in Monet’s new manner of picture-making. The third chapter looks at Monet’s depictions of urban labor in relation to period changes in the structure of work hours. The fourth and fifth chapters are again connected in that they study the effects that newly regularized and synchronized time had on Monet’s practice. Looking at his Gare Saint-Lazare group and the advent of serial painting, these chapters bring Monet’s art of instantaneity in line with the emergence of national and international time standards, which resulted in the eventual codification of Universal Time. Ultimately, I propose that the instant had to be made uniform and collective before Monet could reference it in his art, registering it as a new cornerstone of modern painting. The book will conclude with two codas: the first studies Monet’s engagement with the theory of the “eternal return” of history, and the second centers on impressionism’s competition with the ever-faster shutter speed of the period’s cameras. 

    University of Pennsylvania 
    Paul Mellon Senior Fellow, 2020–2021 

    In the fall of 2021, André Dombrowski will return to his position as Frances Shapiro-Weitzenhoffer Associate Professor of 19th Century European Art in the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of the History of Art, where he will also serve as undergraduate chair.